Featured photo courtesy of @sir_watch_geek
To the victor go the spoils. By definition, adages like this, communicate general truths. However, the story of the Valjoux 7750 might be an exception to this rule—having been trumped not once, but twice in the annals of horological history. And yet, forty-eight years after its creation, the Valjoux 7750 finds itself the most ubiquitous automatic chronograph movement on the planet. I bet someone’s made some money from that.
The Birth of the Automatic Chronograph (and other fancy things)
In 1969, a tremor rippled through the watch world—followed by a Tsunami. The Valjoux 7750 was involved in neither of those.
The initial tremor was the development of the world’s first automatic chronograph movement—as opposed to one which required manual winding. The title, still up for grabs, has been touted by three different competitors. The Brietling/Heuer collaboration, once known as the secretive “Project 99,” yielded the elegant Chronomatic/Calibre 11. Afraid of being beaten to the punch, Zenith rushed its now famous El Primero to market that same year. And then Seiko, hardly aware that there was such a race occurring in Switzerland, released its 6139. Valjoux, or Ébauches SA, didn’t even have a dinner reservation at the table.
However, the Tsunami is the reason Seiko had its mind elsewhere. You see, 1969 was also the year the Japanese watchmaker released the Astron 35SQ—a movement that would commence the “quartz crisis” and shake the very foundations of Swiss watchmaking primacy. This time, Valjoux was not the only Swiss movement-maker without a reservation.
The beauty of the Calibre 11 and the El Primero is undeniable. Their column-wheel construction is lauded as the pinnacle of chronograph design. And that’s easy to understand if you comprehend the precision required to create such tolerances. But, boy, is it expensive to make.
Please, sir, I want it cheaper
Partly to compete with the tidal wave of quartz, and partly to compete with the elegance of the column wheel automatic, Ébauches SA—located in the Vallée de Joux—called upon the services of one 24-year-old Edmond Capt, freshly arrived from his job at Rolex. Capt, along with Gérald Gander and Donald Rochat, was charged with creating an automatic chronograph that leant itself more easily to mass manufacturing. In other words…to design a less expensive movement.
One title that the Valjoux, or ETA 7750 (as it is called today), might have reason to claim, is the first movement to be developed by computer assisted design (CAD). In the early 1970s, co-developer, Donald Rochat, had access to a mainframe that occupied entire floors in his Neuchatel offices. With this new technology, the team was able to work quickly through drawings that replicated different operational chains.
Capt began his quest with the ETA 7733 as a base. This was a hand-wound calibre that itself was founded on the Venus 188. The key difference between his final design and that of the automatics that preceded it was the mechanism which drove the chronograph function. Instead of a column wheel, the Valjoux 7750 used a series of three levers that pushed, or slid, an oblong cam. Today, this is called a coulisse movement.
In 1973/4, the year of its release, the calibre sold more than 100 000 units. Watches like Porsche Design’s Orfina lined up for it. But its initial success would be short-lived. Quartz was king and the movement was shelved a year later until 1985.
Variations on a Theme
It was during this time that the Swatch Group acquired the company, along with several venerable watchmaking houses, breathing new life into the languishing Swiss industry. One of the first projects out of the blocks was IWC’s DaVinci. The flexible platform of the 7750 was altered to include a moonphase complication. The timepiece was an immediate hit. Since then, the Valjoux 7750 has found its way into numerous brands, including Omega, Longines, Tissot, Sinn, Breitling, and TAGHeuer.
IWC returned to it to celebrate their 125th Anniversary. The Destriero Scafusia adapted the 7750 to include a flying tourbillon and a perpetual calendar. At the time, it was touted as the world’s most complicated watch.
When Fortis began its collaboration with the Russian space program in the 1990s, they added an alarm function to the movement and later a GMT complication. It can even be argued that Longines’ L688 and Omega’s 3330 are distant cousins of the 7750, by way of the ETA A08.L01…with, of all things, a column wheel. In juxtaposition to this propensity for complicating the calibre, Panerai stripped the movement down to form its three-hand OPIII–proving that the options may well be endless.
Today, there are many pretenders to the throne. The Sellita SW500, Hamilton’s H21, and Bremont’s BE-83—to name but a few–all use the 7750 as a base. Microbrands, when they do boldly make foray into the realm of mechanical chronographs, look to the Valjoux as a step up from the hand-wound Seagull ST19.
Common References and Modifications
|7750 –||Subdials at 6, 9, and 12; day/date at 3|
|7751 –||Subdials at 6, 9, and 12; central date hand; day/month at 12; moonphase at 6|
|7753 –||Subdials at 3, 6, and 9; date at 4|
|7754 –||Subdials at 6, 9, and 12; date at 3; GMT hand|
|7760 –||Manual wind; subdials at 6, 9, and 12, day/date at 3|
|7765 –||Manual wind; subdials and 9 and 12 /w date|
You Can’t Please Everyone All of the Time (plus my two cents)
Despite this, the calibre also has its critics. It’s a short trip from inexpensive, adaptable, and robust to cheap, generic, and inelegant. Some complain about the stiffness of its pushers, the noise of its rotor, or the freewheeling wobble produced when it spins in the opposite direction of its wind. Connoisseurs look down on the coulisse action in favour of the more sophisticated column wheel construction. In the end, there is no accounting for taste. However, its pervasive presence in the industry—in all of its many forms—speaks for itself. Edmond Capt, for his part, is credited with having created more than 30 different calibres in his lifetime. This is more than any other watchmaker in history. Nonetheless, I am sure he would be proud to hang his hat on the Valjoux 7750.
When asked how he came to his theory of gravity, Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Capt stood on a few shoulders in 1973. Others have certainly stood on his since then.
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